10 Best Herniated Disc Upper Back Exercises To Heal Pain

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Herniated Disc Upper Back Exercises

When selecting herniated disc upper back exercises, finding ones that strengthen the muscles without causing further damage to the thoracic spine is critical.

I put together this list in hopes of assisting you in the healing process so you can resume living wonderfully.

If any of the following exercises make your pain worse, STOP immediately and move on to the next.

Or schedule a physical therapy session to have the therapist monitor your form.

Key Takeaways:

  • Low-impact exercising reduces pressure on the thoracic region, which protects the organ systems and increases space between discs.
  • Herniations in the upper back occur when a disc cracks open and pushes out of place. This may lead to spinal cord compression (pain, tingling, numbness).
  • Without regard to individual limitations/injury severity, three of the top exercises are scapular retraction (1), cat-cows (2), and thoracic extensions (3).

Upper Back Exercises for Herniated Disc

1. Scapular Retraction

This simple, yet effective exercise will single-handedly strengthen the upper back stabilizer and mover muscles responsible for all sorts of anatomical functions.

More importantly for herniated discs, these can help re-align the shoulders and arms, alleviating spinal load.

Practice scapular retraction by:

  1. Sitting upright with your arms relaxed at your sides.
  2. Slightly sticking your chest up and tucking in your chin.
  3. Moving your shoulder blades backward, imagine you’re squeezing a pencil in the center of your upper back.
  4. Hold for 2-3 seconds, then relax and repeat for 1-3 sets of 6-10 reps.

Trainer Tip: Ensure the shoulders remain at an equal height, and minimize upward movement.

2. Neck Retraction

Neck retractions, commonly called chin tucks, are strategically used to prevent poor posture.

Like the former, this reduces constriction on the spine.

Get to chin-tucking by:

  1. Sitting with good posture and your head facing forward.
  2. Placing your pointer and middle finger on your chin.
  3. Slide your chin away from your hand, toward your neck.
  4. Hold this position for a 1-5 count.
  5. Slowly release to the starting position.
  6. Do 5-20 more reps for a total of 3-5 sets.

Spreading them throughout the day is a fine strategy in case your neck fatigues quickly.

Trainer Tip: Keep your head neutral the entire time.

Don’t tilt upward or downward or retract your chin further than feels comfortable.

3. Seated Thoracic Extension

Thoracic extensions work to improve mobility and functionality throughout many areas of the body.

When the t-spine is loose, the body will decompress and you may even notice improvements in breathing.

To achieve thoracic extension:

  1. Sit up straight with your lower back against the chair’s backrest.
  2. Roll up a towel to place behind your mid-back.
  3. Cross your arms over your chest.
  4. Extend your upper back and head over the chair, aiming toward the floor.
  5. The front torso should form an arc and your eyes should face the ceiling during step 4.
  6. Return your spine to the neutral position and repeat for 1-3 sets of 4-10 reps.

Trainer Tip: Relax your stomach muscles and exhale as you lean back.

Only extend as far as the pain and body allow in a controlled fashion.

4. Cat-Cow

This stretch actively takes the spine through a safe range of flexion and extension.

The interrelated calm pattern of breathing is popular for providing relaxation to reduce pain.

To get started with cat-cows:

  1. Plant your palms and knees on the ground to get into a tabletop pose, making sure your spine is flat.
  2. Face the floor as you relax your shoulder blades away from your ears.
  3. To enter the cow: inhale, raise your pelvis, and draw your shoulders back.
  4. Press up through your palms to lift your chest, and dip your stomach toward the ground.
  5. You should now have a forward gaze.
  6. Transition to the cat by exhaling, curling your tailbone, and rounding your spine upward, while slightly curving your chin inward.
  7. Again, press up from your palms to deepen the stretch.

Trainer Tip: Ensure your wrists are stacked underneath the shoulders, and the knees under the hips.

5. Thoracic Rotation

The thoracic rotation is designed to regain mobility in the t-spine. (Quite useful for us avid chair sitters.)

When it gets stiff, especially from a herniated disc, the lower back has to make up for it.

This creates a domino effect when the lumbar spine gets injured subsequently.

Let’s do thoracic rotation:

  1. Once again, sit in a chair.
  2. Cross your hands over your shoulders and lift your elbows pointing forward.
  3. With your head facing forward gently turn your shoulders to the right side.
  4. Then, turn them to the left.
  5. Continue this motion using a consistent tempo for 30-60 seconds.

Trainer Tip: Lesson the degree of rotation if you’re unable to keep your head directed forward.

6. Shoulder Rolls

I guess you could say that shoulder rolls are the advanced version of scapular retraction.

These are great to do once you’ve built up the initial strength from doing basic retraction holds.

The addition of dynamic movement really helps ease the upper back.

To roll your shoulders:

  1. Stand or sit upright with your arms at your sides.
  2. Inhale as you raise your shoulders toward your ears, then back, and down.
  3. Once the downward phase is complete, exhale and relax them to their natural position.
  4. Repeat for 5-10 repetitions.

Trainer Tip: Try to move each shoulder evenly throughout the range of motion.

You can also try these in the forward direction.

The sequence would be back, up, forward, down.

7. Brugger

The Brugger (one of many ways to spell it) was invented to correct slouched posture.

This is essential to negate the excessive loading effects gravity has on the spinal discs.

Although there will always be pressure from gravity, it is worse when failing to stand with an upright posture.

Begin the Brugger by:

  1. Sitting on the edge of a chair, with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Spread your legs to shoulder width and point your toes slightly outward.
  3. Face forward with the top of your head directed at the ceiling.
  4. Arch your lower back.
  5. Extend your arms outward at about 15 degrees. (Palms facing forward.)
  6. Scarcely retract your shoulder and neck muscles.
  7. Hold this position for 10 seconds.

Trainer Tip: Distribute your body weight onto your legs to let the stomach muscles soften without sacrificing stability.

8. Upper Back Foam Roll

I tried this with greater mindfulness on where I positioned my elbows for the first time ever a few days ago.

And let me tell ya, I didn’t know it was possible to achieve that level of myofascial release.

I’d suggest using a smooth roller instead of one that has a rigid surface.

Otherwise, the little spikes might dig too deep, causing pain to radiate.

Also, pay attention to the spacing of your elbows.

When they’re tight together, the deeper release you’ll feel.

If it’s getting too deep then spread them wider apart.

Without further ado, here’s how to do the upper back foam roll:

  1. Lay perpendicularly on the foam roller so it’s resting on your lower scapular region.
  2. With your feet on the ground and knees bent, slowly prop your hips up and brace your abdominal muscles.
  3. Set your hands on the rear of your head, with the elbows tucked in.
  4. Begin rolling through your traps and mid-back for as long as needed.

Trainer Tip: You can also perform thoracic foam roller extensions.

From the starting position, drop your glutes to the floor and extend your head backward as far as you can.

Flex forward until your torso is aligned, then repeat for 8-12 reps.

9. Standing Row

I wanted to include a resistance training exercise for you gym freaks out there (not offensive cuz I am too;).

These aren’t just any standing rows, these are resistance band rows.

You’ll be performing the reps from an upright stance, through a horizontal plane of motion.

This ensures that there’s not too much pressure being pressed on the disc compared to pulling from overhead.

Bands also provide a great challenge for the back muscles without needing any burdensome equipment.

Do the standing row by:

  1. Anchoring the band around something secure at lower pec height.
  2. Overhand gripping the handles.
  3. Stepping back to create constant tension with your arms extended in front of your chest.
  4. Hinging your hips with a slight bend in the knees.
  5. To begin the rowing motion, start so your shoulder blades are slightly protracted (rounded forward).
  6. Then, drive your elbows back until your hands reach your belly, retracting your scapula as you go.
  7. Release the tension and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps.

Trainer Tip: Use a thumbless grip when holding the resistance band to avoid overuse of the biceps and forearms.

10. Upper Trapezius Stretch

Contrary to common belief, the traps are actually a pretty big muscle that spans from the thoracic to the cervical spine.

However, this stretch focuses on the upper portion, which when tight can prevent your shoulders and mid-upper spine from moving through a full ROM.

Making this a critical release point for doing different exercises such as shoulder rolls effectively.

If the pain begins releasing from your upper trap/side of the neck that’s a good sign you’re doing them right.

Here’s how to stretch the upper trapezius:

  1. Grab a chair that has a backrest.
  2. Sit with the left hand (or the side that you want to stretch first) underneath your buttocks with the shoulder pulled down.
  3. Use your right hand to grab the side of your head and tilt it toward your right shoulder.
  4. Hold for a satisfactory duration.
  5. Switch sides.

Trainer Tip: Your trunk should NOT rotate or tilt during the stretch.

They should stay in line with your thighs and perpendicular to the floor.

Herniated Disc Stretches and Exercises To Avoid

During the recovery process, you should avoid stretches and exercises that involve high-impact or high-strain moves.

  • Heavy lifting

Most people are aware of the impact that heavy lifting of any sort can have on the spine/joints over time.

Having a herniated disc is no exception to the rule and can cause permanent damage if you don’t take a step back from your intense habits until healed.

  • Forward bending

Activities that drive forward bending (flexion), could stress the bottom portion of the t-spine.

This goes for standing hamstring stretches, crunches, and leg presses to name a few.

  • Upright biking

The form needed for upright biking is not ideal when rehabbing this injury.

It places the rider in a forward-leaning posture.

This is great for the leg muscles, but not for the spine.

What Is an Upper Back Disc Herniation?

Thoracic spine disc herniation graphic

An upper back herniated disc occurs when its inner gel-like fluid excretes through the tough outer portion due to cracking.

This forfeits their elasticity, potentially leading to a pinched nerve.

These discs act as padding between the 12 vertebrae located in the thoracic spine.

So it’s vital that they maintain their integrity, otherwise, all sorts of issues can manifest, some of which I’ll explain in a second.

Fortunately, t-spine herniations are responsible for 1% in conjunction with cervical and lumbar.

But I mean if you’re reading this you probably suffer from one or know somebody who does.

Related article: 15 Back Exercises for Lumbar Disc Herniation

Symptoms of a Disc Herniation

A thoracic herniated or slipped disc may press against the spinal cord, oftentimes yielding the following symptoms:

  • Sharp, burning, or tingling back pain
  • Arm or shoulder pain
  • Neck pain
  • Leg weakness

In some instances, symptoms will be nonexistent, especially if the individual has a solid muscle base to avert compression.

Why Exercise Is an Effective Treatment

LIGHT exercise is an effective treatment for disc herniation because it:

  • Promotes blood flow, which sends more nutrients and helps loosen up the site.
  • Builds muscle around the spine for more support since the disc can no longer provide it.
  • Corrects bad posture to relieve pressure on the vertebrae.

How Do You Treat a Herniated Disc in the Upper Back?

Recommendations to treat a herniated disc in the upper back without surgery include:

– Getting quality sleep to optimize your body’s recovery.

– Consuming an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen to relieve pain.

– Use hot/cold therapy on the injured area.

– Create a physical therapy routine that follows specific exercises to reduce compression and build muscle around the disc problem.

What Is the Fastest Way To Heal a Thoracic Herniated Disc?

The fastest way to heal a thoracic herniated disc depends on the severity.

Oftentimes you can speed recovery by getting enough rest and performing the right exercises for your condition.

If the pain in your spinal cord is unbearable and unresponsive to plan A treatments then surgery may be needed.

Can You Do Upper Body Workouts With a Herniated Disc?

Yes, you can do upper-body workouts with a herniated disc.

GENTLE exercise is often a standard treatment option for this condition to strengthen the muscles around the spine.

Consult with a certified physical therapist to ensure this form of rehab is right for your specific injury.

What’s the Best Exercise for a Herniated Disc?

The best exercise for a herniated disc is anything low-impact that doesn’t cause more pain or compression on your intervertebral disc space.

Here are some examples for the mid-upper and lower spine:

– Lumbar spine extensions (lower)
– Thoracic spine extensions (mid-upper)
– Cervical spine extensions (neck)
– Recumbent biking
– Bird dog
– Half cobra pose
– Swimming
– Walking

What Are 3 Signs and Symptoms of a Herniated Disk?

3 signs and symptoms of a herniated disk are:

1. Numbness or tingling in one leg or arm.
2. Pain when bending or twisting the back, neck, or shoulder.
3. Muscle spasm or weakness in the aforementioned spots.

Mend Your Mid-Upper Spine With These Exercises!

Now that you have an idea about what some of the right exercises are for an upper back disc herniation it’s time to begin the healing process.

Implement these into your daily routine and experiment to identify which ones are the best for you.

You can also meet with a physical therapist in your area who can asses your pain and provide a comprehensive personalized exercise program.





Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!